Act One: King Lear, an octogenarian monarch of pre-Christian England, has assembled all of his nobles to discuss the future rule of his kingdom after he relieves his aged self from its burdens. Before he arrives with his daughters and their husbands, the Earls of Kent and Gloucester discuss how they think Lear will divide the kingdom. Will it be equally divided? If not, which son-in-law will be favoured with a better portion?
Edmund, who is with the two earls, now becomes the subject of discussion. Gloucester tells Kent that Edmund is his illegitimate son, describing with lustful glee how much he enjoyed the night he slept with Edmund’s mother. All Edmund can do is quietly, patiently listen to his father speak disrespectfully of his mother to Kent (one can safely assume Edmund’s had to put up with this kind of thing his whole life).
Lear and the others arrive. Lear tells Gloucester to get the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, suitors to Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia. Gloucester leaves to get them. Lear announces his plan to retreat from the burdens of rule (though he’ll keep the title and dignity of king), and to give those responsibilities to his daughters and their husbands. Whichever daughter loves him the most, and can thus express that love the best (see Quote 1 from my ‘Analysis of King Lear‘), will receive the best third of the kingdom.
Goneril, the eldest, speaks first, giving a flowery speech about how she loves her father more than words can say, more than any of the most basic human needs. Flattered and contented, Lear gives one third of the kingdom to her and her husband, the Duke of Albany.
Nervous Cordelia doesn’t wish to flatter her father with phoney speeches of love just to gain land. She’d rather “Love, and be silent.”
Regan, the middle-born daughter, is next to speak. Like Goneril, Regan gives her father a honey-tongued speech of her ‘love’ for Lear, going so far as to say Goneril’s speech describes Regan’s very love of her father, though her own love surpasses Goneril’s by far. Regan says nothing else gives her happiness but Lear’s love.
Again pleased, and not at all aware of how fake these speeches are, the vain king gives Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, their third of the kingdom. Though Cordelia doesn’t want to flatter the father she so dearly loves, she’s confident he’ll know the sincerity of her love well enough to overlook her laconic expression of it.
Unfortunately, she’s wrong, for he turns to her and, since she’s his favourite daughter, he expects an even more poetic speech from her, resulting in the best third of the kingdom.
She insists that she has “Nothing” to say; he warns her that the lack of a pretty speech will result in the lack of a third of the kingdom (see Quote 2 from my ‘Analysis’). She says that she returns his love as is fitting a daughter, “no more nor less.” She adds that when she marries, half of her love will go to her husband; she finds it odd that her married sisters give all their love to Lear.
Angered by Cordelia’s bluntness, the vain king suddenly disowns her. Shocked, the Earl of Kent intervenes and passionately pleads for her, saying she loves Lear no less than Goneril or Regan, but rather doubtlessly loves him much more, given the phoniness of the elder sisters’ speeches. Lear warns Kent not to continue, but Kent does, arguing that Lear’s actions are dangerously foolish, and Kent has always done everything he could to protect his king, faced every danger, and even now does so, risking the king’s displeasure, to protect him from his “hideous rashness.”
Lear can no longer endure Kent’s upbraidings and banishes him, giving him five days to leave England. Kent leaves after wishing Cordelia well and hoping, though doubting, that Goneril’s and Regan’s treatment of Lear will match the words of their gushing speeches of love.
Gloucester enters with the King of France and Duke of Burgundy. Lear offers Cordelia to them, but with no dowry, indicating only his “hate” for her as his reason.
The King of France is shocked to hear this change in Lear’s attitude, for the French king knows Cordelia was always Lear’s favourite daughter, and he wishes to know what monstrous thing she could possibly have done to deserve no dowry and such hate. Cordelia says it is no sin not to flatter, and that, though she’s unhappy to have displeased her father, she’s glad she has no glib tongue.
Impressed with her virtue and honesty, valuing them over a lust for land and power, the French king would happily have the dowerless bride. He asks Burgundy if he would have her, for “She is herself a dowry.”
Burgundy will have her only with the dowry, but Lear coldly says, “Nothing.” Burgundy apologizes to Cordelia, regretting that she must lose a father and a husband in himself. Knowing he wants only the dowry, she sees no loss in Burgundy’s ended suit. He leaves with Lear.
The King of France accepts her as his queen, and before they leave, he’d have her say goodbye to her sisters. She asks them to take good care of Lear, though she has every reason to believe they won’t. When Goneril and Regan tell her not to prescribe to them their duty, we see the evil daughters’ true colours for the first time. Cordelia and the French king leave; then Goneril and Regan discuss Lear. They worry about how rashly he has disowned his favourite daughter, knowing it’s because his aged mind is going, and that he has little knowledge of his true self. They plan to correspond regularly with each other, informing each other of any volatile changes in his mood that could be a danger to them. They leave, as does everyone else.
Edmund is alone in Gloucester’s castle, expressing his resentment over custom’s unfair preference of legitimate children over those, like him, born out of wedlock. Envying his legitimate brother Edgar, Edmund plans to cheat him out of his inheritance from their father. Edmund holds a letter he’s forged, one imitating Edgar’s handwriting, one that purports to persuade Edmund to help Edgar kill their father and take all of his land and property.
Gloucester enters, and Edmund hides the forged letter, doing so in a way so as to attract Gloucester’s curiosity about its contents. When Gloucester asks what the letter is, Edmund guiltily says, “Nothing,” and continues to seem reluctant to have his father read it, though of course he very much wants Gloucester to read it.
Gloucester insists on reading it, and Edmund sheepishly gives it to him, saying he hopes Edgar is merely testing Edmund’s loyalty to their father by writing it. Gloucester is shocked when reading the contents, calling Edgar an “Abominable villain!” He then hopes Edgar doesn’t really feel the way the letter makes him seem to feel. Edmund pretends to hope the same thing. They will note Edgar’s future words to see if they match his words in the letter.
Gloucester then mentions Kent’s banishment for the crime of “honesty”; he imagines an unfavourable astrological influence is to blame for everyone’s recent misfortunes. Gloucester leaves, then Edmund speaks contemptuously of people’s foolish faith in astrology.
Edgar enters, and Edmund now speaks as though he himself believes in astrology. Then he tells Edgar that their father is mad at him. Edgar rightly assumes someone has done him wrong; Edmund, of course, agrees that there’s an unknown villain among them, and advises Edgar to avoid their father for his safety. Edgar leaves, knowing he’ll stay in Edmund’s home; Edmund gleefully contemplates his imminent inheritance of Gloucester’s land.
A month later, and in Goneril’s castle, she complains to her servant Oswald about the noisy, troublesome hundred knights Lear has with him; she also tells Oswald to slacken in his service to Lear, as should the other servants.
Kent has shaved, changed into the clothes of a poor man, and will speak in a different accent to disguise himself while in Lear’s presence; thus he’ll be able to continue to serve his king. He’ll call himself ‘Caius’.
Lear enters with his retinue of one hundred knights. ‘Caius’ introduces himself to Lear and offers the king his services. Lear accepts, and asks where his fool is; the Fool is so saddened over the disowning of Cordelia that he’s avoiding others’ company for the moment. Oswald walks by, and Lear calls to him, but he ignores the king. Furious, Lear has a knight fetch Oswald back, but the knight returns without Oswald, and sadly tells Lear that he doesn’t believe the king is any longer being given the ceremonial respect he deserves.
Oswald finally comes back, and Lear stops him angrily, asking him who Lear is; Oswald impudently says Lear is Goneril’s father, rather than the king, which angers Lear even more. ‘Caius’ then trips Oswald and scolds him for his lack of deference. Oswald runs off, and Lear pays ‘Caius’ for his service.
The Fool enters, offering his coxcomb to ‘Caius’ for following a foolish king. The Fool continues to indulge in a series of witticisms, indicating how Lear is the real fool for giving all his power to Goneril and Regan, and for disowning Cordelia, the only daughter he can really trust.
Goneril enters, complaining to Lear about his noisy, riotous hundred knights. Lear insists they’re well-behaved, but she would have half the number dismissed, leaving Lear with fifty to follow him. Lear is enraged at this. The Duke of Albany, having just entered the room, is at a loss as to what has angered Lear so. Lear curses at Goneril, wishing either sterility on her, or for her to bear children as cursed with thanklessness as she is; then he leaves her for Regan’s castle. ‘Caius’, the Fool, and Lear’s knights follow, ‘Caius’ to rush ahead with letters for Regan and Gloucester, preparing them for Lear’s arrival.
The Fool continues his witticisms with Lear, explaining that Lear shouldn’t have gotten old till he’d become wise. Lear hopes he won’t go mad.
Act Two: In Gloucester’s castle, Edmund warns Edgar of their father’s wrath, and before Edgar runs away, he and Edmund act out a brief sword fight, Edmund yelling for help. Alone, Edmund cuts his arm, and when Gloucester and his servants arrive, Edmund tells his father that Edgar has wounded him. Gloucester tells his servants to chase after Edgar.
Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, arrive. Gloucester expresses his grief at Edgar’s apparent disloyalty; Regan tells of how she doesn’t wish to receive Lear at her castle, having received letters from Goneril of Lear’s rage, something with which neither daughter sympathizes.
‘Caius’, having already arrived at Gloucester’s castle, sees Oswald come, and he speaks abusively to Oswald, knowing the knavish servant of Goneril is no friend to Lear. ‘Caius’ then threatens physical violence against Oswald, who cries for help like the coward he is.
Gloucester, Regan and Cornwall arrive, asking what the matter is. Oswald claims that ‘Caius’ is a ruffian whose life he’s spared out of respect for his age; ‘Caius’ says Oswald is a cowardly knave. Having no sympathy for ‘Caius’, Cornwall asks what Oswald’s fault is, then says ‘Caius’ is the real knave, since he affects “a saucy roughness” and is proud of his bluntness. Cornwall and Regan have him put in the stocks, his legs bound; ‘Caius’ says it’s a shocking thing to stock the king’s messenger, but Cornwall will gladly take responsibility for that.
Everyone leaves ‘Caius’ after Gloucester has apologized for Cornwall’s excessive punishment. Alone, ‘Caius’ takes out a letter he’s received from Cordelia, one which says she’s raising the French army to invade England and restore Lear to the throne. He falls asleep.
Having run a long time to escape his father’s pursuing servants, Edgar is in the open country, and in a soliloquy discusses his plan to remove his clothes and cover himself with mud. He’ll pretend to be ‘poor Tom’, a mad Bedlam beggar, so no one will know his true identity.
Lear, the Fool, and the knights arrive at Gloucester’s castle, shocked to see ‘Caius’ in the stocks. Lear can’t believe his daughter and son-in-law would dishonour him by stocking his messenger, but ‘Caius’ insists they have.
Lear has Gloucester fetch Regan and Cornwall, so they can explain themselves; Gloucester returns, saying they say they are tired from travelling long (a feeble excuse not to obey their king) and won’t come at the moment. Enraged that he is being treated with the same lack of respect he received in Goneril’s castle, Lear demands that Gloucester go back and fetch them. Embarrassed, Gloucester goes back to get them.
‘Caius’ is released from the stocks, and Lear is angry to know that Cornwall, having finally arrived with Regan, is indeed responsible for stocking ‘Caius’. When Lear complains of Goneril’s attitude, Regan rationalizes her sister’s actions and asks Lear to return to her castle with only fifty knights. When furious Lear says Goneril has his eternal curses, manipulative Regan tearfully complains that he’ll curse her when he’s again in a rash mood; but he reassures her that he never will.
Goneril arrives, to Lear’s dismay, and he is further chagrined to see Regan hold her sister’s hands, loyal to her rather than to him. He says that Goneril is his only in the sense that a disease or a boil on the skin belongs to someone, out of unfortunate necessity, rather than out of love.
Goneril and Regan rationalize the reduction of knights to fifty, saying it would be almost impossible to provide for one hundred men, and that fifty should be more than sufficient. Furthermore, Goneril’s and Regan’s servants should be sufficient to attend to Lear’s needs. This upsets the king all the more.
Regan finds attending to even fifty knights to be too burdensome, and says she’ll reduce Lear’s number to twenty-five. Since Goneril’s love seems to double Regan’s, he says he’ll return to her; but even Goneril won’t accept fifty knights now. She and Regan wonder why he needs even twenty-five knights, or any at all!
Now without even one knight, Lear knows he has lost all power and authority, and in his feelings of having been betrayed, he’s even losing his sanity. In a fury, he leaves the castle with ‘Caius’ and the Fool.
A rainstorm has begun outside, and Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall fear that Lear and his dismissed knights may storm the castle. Gloucester is ordered to lock his castle doors, leaving the old king homeless in the storm at night. Gloucester reluctantly does so.
Act Three: Out in the rainstorm, Kent tells a gentleman about the division between the Dukes of Albany and of Cornwall, and about the plan to take Lear to Dover, where the French army will be, to help settle the dispute.
In his madness, Lear rants and raves while being soaked in the rain and wind. (See Quote 3 from my ‘Analysis’.) He insists that he finds no fault with the inclement weather, since he gave nothing to it, as he gave Goneril and Regan, who should be grateful. He “will be the pattern of all patience”; he will endure whatever harshness the wind and rain hits him with, for his daughters’ wickedness is far more insupportable. (See Quote 4.) ‘Caius’ and the Fool urge Lear to find shelter, but the mad king insists on braving the weather still.
In Gloucester’s castle, Gloucester tells Edmund of the plan to restore Lear to the throne, the French army having landed in Dover. Though Gloucester assumes Edmund won’t tell Goneril and Regan about what they will consider treason, he of course will.
Still standing in the storm, Lear imagines the suffering of the homeless during this night; his heart aches to know that he, their king, has done too little for them. To be in their wretched condition seems therapeutic to Lear, for he can truly pity them, and by becoming their equal, he knows justice is finally being done for them.
The Fool goes into a hovel where he and ‘Caius’ hope Lear will soon take shelter, but the Fool is frightened by a madman in there; both come out. The madman is really Edgar, covered in mud and calling himself ‘poor Tom’. He rants and raves wildly about all the devils he’s known and been possessed by. Lear assumes ‘Tom’ is mad because his daughters have betrayed him, as Lear’s have him. As ‘Tom’ continues ranting about devils (Quote 5), Lear is impressed, imagining the madman to be a “Noble philosopher.”
Gloucester has come out to them, and he leads them to an outhouse nearby his castle, where they can sleep for the night.
When Cornwall learns of Gloucester’s colluding with Lear and the French army, Gloucester is deemed a traitor. Cornwall promises to make Edmund the next Earl of Gloucester; Edmund pretends to be sad about betraying his father.
In the outhouse, Lear gives an imaginary trial for Goneril and Regan. Edgar, noting the real insanity of Lear, finds relative comfort in how his own sufferings aren’t as severe.
In Gloucester’s castle, when Goneril and Regan learn of Gloucester’s treason, the former suggests plucking out his eyes. Goneril, Edmund, and Oswald leave, while Gloucester is searched for.
Gloucester, now apprehended, is brought in and pinioned to a chair by two or three servants. He demands of Regan and Cornwall why he, the host of his castle, is being so mistreated by his guests. Regan and Cornwall call him a traitor; Regan plucks his white beard contemptuously. She and Cornwall ask where “the lunatic king” is being sent.
Gloucester tells of receiving a letter from “a neutral heart”, and of sending Lear to Dover. When they angrily demand why to Dover, Gloucester says he’d not have them pluck out poor old Lear’s eyes. Though he hopes to see the day of Lear’s revenge, Cornwall says he never will.
Cornwall puts out one of Gloucester’s eyes, leaving him with only one. One of the servants fights with Cornwall, trying to stop him from putting out Gloucester’s other eye. Cornwall is mortally wounded, but Regan takes a sword and kills the rebelling servant. Cornwall goes back in pain to Gloucester and puts out his other eye.
In his agony, Gloucester calls out for Edmund, but Regan tells him that Edmund, having informed them of Gloucester’s treason, hates him. Now Gloucester, like Lear, despairingly knows which of his offspring to trust, and which not to. Regan has him thrown outside. Cornwall dies of his wound, though Regan, secretly in love with Edmund, doesn’t care.
The servants, pitying Gloucester, will get flax and egg-whites to apply to his eyes.
Act Four: Outside, Edgar is horrified to see an old servant guiding blind Gloucester, who in his despair doesn’t want any help. Gloucester has no way to go; having distrusted the wrong son, he stumbled when he saw. If he could only have Edgar with him again, it would be as though he had eyes again.
The heaviness of Edgar’s sorrow returns to see his father in such a wretched condition. Still all covered in mud, he’s still known to everyone as ‘poor Tom’, the mad beggar. Gloucester imagines a similar cruelty inflicted on ‘Tom’ as on himself, a cruelty the gods inflict on all of us (Quote 6). He tells the servant to find clothes for ‘Tom’, since he wants the madman to lead him from now on. After all, only a madman would willingly lead Gloucester to a cliff in Dover, from which the suicidal blind man hopes to jump.
Before Albany’s palace, Oswald tells Goneril of how the Duke of Albany, her husband, is gladdened by the arrival of the French army, and saddened by her coming. She assumes Albany acts this way out of cowardice and weakness. Secretly in love with Edmund, as Regan is, Goneril gives him a love-token and a kiss. Edmund leaves, and Albany enters; the latter has even more contempt for her than she has for him, knowing what she, Regan, and Cornwall have done to Lear. He’s then horrified to learn that Gloucester’s been blinded, and though Albany must help fight against the French invaders, he hopes to avenge Gloucester for his eyes.
Kent and Lear have arrived at the French camp near Dover. Kent speaks with a gentleman about the current situation, and about Cordelia, who is deeply distressed for her father. They must prepare for the armies of Albany and Cornwall; Kent will take the gentleman to where Lear is.
Also in Dover, Cordelia has her men search for her mad father, whose head is crowned with weeds, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, etc.
Regan, aware of Goneril’s love of Edmund, and therefore jealous, tells Oswald to give Edmund a note she’s written. She says that since she is now a widow, Edmund is more appropriate as a husband for her than for Goneril, who obviously doesn’t love her husband. She also tells Oswald that if he should find Gloucester, he should kill him–he’ll be rewarded for such service.
Now also in Dover, Edgar leads Gloucester to what he says is a cliff; to look down at such a deep fall, Edgar says, is frightening. Gloucester gives ‘poor Tom’ a jewel in a purse and tells him to leave. Edgar steps back, whispering that his plan is to cure his father of his despair by pretending to indulge it. Gloucester says some loving words for Edgar, then jumps.
The ‘cliff’ that Gloucester has fallen from is nothing of the sort; he’s done little more than fallen down. Edgar, now pretending to be a man in the country (for that’s where they actually are), comes over to Gloucester and praises the gods for preserving him after such a long fall. Gloucester is confused as to whether he’s actually fallen or not; Edgar says that a vile-looking devil at the top of the cliff was with Gloucester when he fell. Edgar says the gods, in preserving Gloucester’s life, surely want the blind old man to continue living.
Edgar and Gloucester find mad King Lear, dressed in weeds. Lear rants on and on about how Goneril and Regan lied in their professing of their love for him.
Gloucester, recognizing Lear’s voice, asks if he’s the king; Lear affirms this, as if it were obvious (Quote 7). Lear continues ranting insanely, imagining he’s forgiving men for adultery, since illegitimate Edmund seemed better to Gloucester than legitimate Goneril and Regan were to Lear. Besides, he needs soldiers, so he would have “copulation thrive”. Edgar can only pity Lear’s “Reason in madness!”
A gentleman and attendants come to get Lear and take him to Cordelia; but first they have to chase after the mad king, for he suddenly runs away.
Oswald then finds Edgar and Gloucester, and brandishing a sword, prepares to kill the blind old man, who welcomes the thought of being put out of his misery. Edgar fights Oswald and mortally wounds him. Before Oswald dies, though, he tells Edgar of a letter Goneril has written for Edmund to read. Edgar reads it, scowling from learning of her plot to kill Albany and marry Edmund.
In Cordelia’s tent, Lear has been bathed, changed into clean clothes, and tended to by doctors, who have used medicines to treat him. He is sleeping. Cordelia thanks Kent for his efforts to take care of her father; he doesn’t want her to reveal that he’s Kent until he deems the time fit to do so. She continues to worry about her father. The doctor would have Lear wake, since he’s been sleeping for a long time.
Lear wakes up and looks at her; he’s not sure, but he thinks she’s Cordelia. She tearfully affirms this, while he assumes she hates him for disowning her; she, of course, can easily forgive his rash treatment of her at the beginning of the play. He now knows that, underneath all the kingly pomp, he’s just a foolish old man.
Act Five: At the British camp near Dover, Goneril and Regan continue in their jealous rivalry over Edmund, bickering with each other, with him and Albany present. The sisters and Edmund leave. When Edgar, still in a poor man’s rags, has a chance to speak alone with Albany, he gives him Goneril’s incriminating letter. Albany reads the letter, and is horrified at his wife’s treachery. Edgar says a man will challenge Edmund to a duel after the war; he leaves Albany.
Edmund has promised himself to both Goneril and Regan. Whichever sister he chooses, he knows the power he’ll acquire mustn’t be threatened by Lear or Cordelia, whom he plans to have executed after the war.
The war happens, and the French lose. Edgar tells Gloucester they must leave, for Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner. Gloucester is still in bad thoughts, and his son must continue to try to comfort him.
Though Lear is Edmund’s prisoner, he’s content to have Cordelia’s love, and so he says that, in prison, they’ll “sing like birds i’ th’ cage.” She asks if he wants to see Goneril and Regan; he says emphatically that he doesn’t, and guards take them away. Edmund gives a captain a note, telling him to have the two prisoners executed.
Albany enters, demanding to have Lear and Cordelia under his protection. Goneril and Regan continue in their bitter rivalry over Edmund, though Regan is ill. (In an aside, Goneril admits to having poisoned Regan: see Quote 8.) Regan, growing sicker, leaves. Albany accuses Edmund of treason; if after a trumpet blows, and no man appears to challenge Edmund to a duel, Albany will.
The trumpet blows, and a masked man appears, accusing Edmund of disloyalty to his family and to his country.
The two men fight, and Edmund is mortally wounded. Goneril is hysterical over dying Edmund. Albany produces her incriminating letter, and she runs away to kill herself.
Dying, Edmund asks who the masked man is. The mask comes off, and it’s Edgar, who then tells the story of how he took care of their blind father; then, when he finally revealed himself as Edgar, Gloucester died of a heart attack, being caught between extremes of joy and grief.
Edmund is actually moved to hear the story of his pitiful father. A gentleman holding a bloody knife informs all that Goneril has killed herself with the knife, and Regan has died of the poisoning. Kent appears, no longer as ‘Caius’, and asks where his king is. Edmund tells them that Lear and Cordelia are to be executed; in spite of his nature, Edmund will do some good in reversing the order of execution. A servant rushes off with Edmund’s sword as proof of the order’s reversal. Edmund is borne away.
While Lear has been saved, it’s too late for Cordelia. A wailing Lear enters carrying her lifeless body (Quote 9). Lear would have a glass put by her mouth; if by chance the glass fogs up with her breath, she’ll still be living. He killed the servant who hanged her. Kent, Edgar, and Albany watch the king in horror and profound pity for his suffering.
A messenger enters, mentioning the death of Edmund. Albany dismisses his death as a trifle in comparison to the tragedy he’s watching with Kent and Edgar.
Lear says his “fool is hanged”: is this the Fool, or his daughter (i.e., his ‘foal’)? He asks why an animal should be allowed to live, but not Cordelia. Then suddenly, Lear thinks he sees her lips moving; in a confusion of joy and grief similar to that of Gloucester, Lear dies of a heart attack.
Kent is amazed that Lear was able to endure for so long. Albany imagines the rule of England will be divided between Edgar and Kent; but Kent, hearing the voice of Lear’s ghost, must kill himself to continue serving his king in the afterlife.
Edgar concludes the play by saying we must “Say what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
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- Analysis of ‘King Lear’ (mawrgorshin.com)